Susan Scafidi in “Misappropriation and the Destruction of Value(s)” explains that beyond its obvious exploitative nature, misappropriation “can [also] … impoverish the cultural development of the source community itself” (105). The example she provides is a legal case in New Mexico in which a local newspaper flew over a Pueblo religious ceremony, interrupting the ceremonial dance, to take pictures, and then misrepresented the event as a pow-wow (104-106). She writes, based on a comment from one of the dancers, “[t]he group may ask itself, ‘Why bother to unite in dance (or song, prayer, procession, etc.) if we will only be interrupted and put on display?’” (104-105). In this case, misappropriation may have caused the group to feel that this meaningful, metaphysical ceremony had lost some of its significance and potency.
Scafidi’s characterization of misappropriation reminded me of an article I read earlier today on the New York Times, which prompted me to think that it is also possible to misappropriate pain and trauma. Titled “White Artist’s Painting of Emmett Till at Whitney Biennial Draws Protests,” the article discusses the controversy surrounding white artist’s, Dana Schutz, painting of the open-coffin photographs of Emmett Till. Black artists, among others, have protested against a white woman painting such a painful loss and the racist hatred it represented for the larger black community. The article quotes Hannah Black, a British-born black artist, who wrote on Facebook: “‘The subject matter is not Schutz’s…White free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others, and are not natural rights. The painting must go.’” This article left me with the following questions: Does a white artist have the right to capture a painful trauma that ‘belongs’ to the black community? Can she do the trauma justice in her art? Meaning, if Schutz cannot identify with the pain of Till’s murder, can her painting authentically reflect the extent of trauma? Or is she misappropriating this pain and thereby undermining its depth and gravitas? Later in the article, Schutz is quoted stating: “I don’t know what it is like to be black in America but I do know what it is like to be a mother… My engagement with this image was through empathy with his mother.” Does this change anything?